Musical Symbols for Flutists
The following is a short guide to some more or less common symbols that a flutist can run into.
Ornaments modify the pitch pattern of individual notes. Keep in mind that ornaments can be executed in many different ways, depending on factors such as context, taste, and the time when a piece was written. For this reason, the sample developments given below should only serve as an indication.
A trill is a rapid alternation between an indicated note and the one above.
In Romantic and modern music, trills usually start on the written note; in Baroque and Classical music, on the other hand, trills should almost always start with the upper note. This second way of playing is sometimes explicitly requested by preceding the trill with the upper note as a small grace note (see appoggiatura and acciaccatura).
Sometimes it is expected that the trill will end with a turn (by sounding the note below rather than the note above the principal note, immediately before the last sounding of the principal note), or some other variation. Such variations are often marked with a few grace notes following the note that bears the trill indication.
In Baroque music, the trill is sometimes indicated with a + (plus) sign above or below the note.
Also see our page on trill fingerings.
The mordent is a rapid alternation between an indicated note, the note above (called the upper mordent, inverted mordent, or pralltriller) or below (called the lower mordent or simply mordent), and the indicated note again.
The upper mordent is indicated by a short thick squiggle (which may also indicate a trill, depending on ); the lower mordent is the same with a short vertical line through it.
A turn (or gruppetto) is a short figure consisting of the note above the one indicated, the note itself, the note below the one indicated, and the note itself again. It is marked by a mirrored S-shape lying on its side above the staff.
The turn sign is often placed between two notes; in that case, it is often played as follows:
The exact speed at which the notes of a turn are executed can vary, as can its rhythm. The question of how a turn is best executed is largely one of context, convention, and taste. The lower and upper added notes may or may not be chromatically raised.
The appoggiatura or long appoggiatura (as opposed to the short appoggiatura, or acciaccatura, see below) suspends the principal note by taking away the time value of the appoggiatura prefixed to it (generally half the time value of the principal note, though in triple or compound meters, for example, it might receive two thirds of the time). The added note is always one degree higher or lower than the principal note. The appoggiatura is written as a grace note prefixed to a principal note and printed in small character, and the emphasis always falls on this grace note, rather than on the principal note.
The acciaccatura (sometimes called short appoggiatura) can be thought of as a shorter variant of the long appoggiatura, where the delay of the principal note is very quick. It is written using a grace note with an oblique stroke through the stem.
An acciaccatura may also consist of multiple grace notes, in which case the oblique stroke is commonly omitted.
In the Classical period, the acciaccatura is usually performed before the beat, and the emphasis falls on the main note rather than on the grace note.
A glissando is a slide from one note to another, signified by a wavy line connecting the two notes. In theory, all of the intervening chromatic notes are heard, albeit very briefly.
On open-hole flutes, some glissandos can be played by gradually covering or uncovering key holes, producing an almost continuous change of pitch (also known as portamento).
Articulations (or accents) specify how individual notes are to be performed within a phrase or passage. They can be fine-tuned by combining more than one such symbol over or under a note.
The staccato indicates that the note is to be played shorter than notated, usually half the value; the rest of the metric value is then silent. Staccato marks may appear on notes of any value, shortening their performed duration without speeding the music itself.
The staccatissimo is usually interpreted as a shorter version of the staccato, indicating a longer silence after the note. However, composers up to the time of Mozart used the two symbols interchangeably, making the marking's meaning ambiguous.
The tenuto (Italian for “sustained”) mark indicates that a note should be played for its full value, or slightly longer; it may also indicate a slight dynamic emphasis. It may be combined with a staccato dot to indicate a slight detachment (portato or mezzo staccato).
A note with an accent is to be played louder or with a harder attack than surrounding unaccented notes. The marked note should have an emphasized beginning and then taper off rather quickly.
The marcato (Italian for “well marked”) indicates that a note is to be played somewhat louder or more forcefully than a note with a regular accent mark.
A fermata (Italian for “stop”) indicates that a note or rest is to be sustained longer than its customary value. The fermata is held for as long as the performer or conductor desires.
This symbol tells the performer to take a breath. This pause should not affect the overall tempo.
A caesura indicates a brief, silent pause, during which time is not counted. In ensemble playing, time resumes when the conductor or leader indicates. This symbol is popularly called “tram-lines” in the U.K. and “railroad tracks” in the U.S.
The 8va (pronounced ottava alta, “high octave”) sign is placed above the staff to indicate the passage is to be played one octave higher.
An 8va or 8vb sign (both signs reading ottava bassa, “low octave”) is placed below the staff to indicate the passage is to be played one octave lower.
The 15ma and 15mb signs are similar to 8va and 8vb, respectively, but indicate that a passage is to be played two octaves higher/lower.
A rapidly repeated note. If the tremolo is between two notes, then they are played in rapid alternation. The number of slashes through the stem (or number of diagonal bars between two notes) indicates the frequency at which the note is to be repeated (or alternated).
In flute music, the tremolo symbol is also used to represent flutter-tonguing, a technique in which performers flutter their tongue to make a characteristic “frrrr” sound. In this case, the note is often marked with a “flt.”, “flz.”, or “frull.” sign.
This sign indicates that preceding groups of beats or measures are to be repeated. Most commonly, it indicates that the previous measure is to be repeated.
The segno (Italian for “sign”) mark is used with the D.S. (“dal segno”, literally “from the sign”) directive, which instructs the performer to repeat playing of the music starting from the nearest segno.
The coda (Italian for “tail”) mark indicates a forward jump in the music to its ending passage, marked with the same sign. It is only used after playing through a D.C. al coda or D.S. al coda.